Annual Pap Smears Might Be A Thing Of The Past For Some Women

Photo by Guille Faingold

Many women have never known a world without Pap smears. The annual cervical cancer test has been an integral part of women's routine health checkups since roughly the mid-1900s. But that might change very soon: New guidelines say the human papillomavirus test can officially replace Pap smears for many women.

Women between ages 30 and 65 can now exclusively rely on an HPV test every five years for effective cervical cancer screening, according to the new recommendations released Tuesday by the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force. Alternatively, they can still continue to get a Pap smear every three years or a combination of the two tests every five years. The task force recommends women ages 21 to 29 still get the Pap every three years, while women under 21 and over 65 can probably forgo screening completely.

Research has been slowly mounting against the annual Pap, which some experts say can cause more harm than good due to the frequency of false positives that trigger unnecessary stress and medical procedures for the misdiagnosed women. HPV causes over 70 percent of all cervical cancer, which means checking for the virus can be a strong means of preventing a woman's risk of developing the disease. Some studies in recent years have even found the HPV test to be more sensitive, and thus more accurate, about assessing cancer risk than the Pap smear. In 2014, the Food and Drug Administration approved the first HPV test that could be used as a primary cancer screening tool for women 25 and older.

That isn't to say the HPV test is without its flaws: HPV is the most commonly sexually transmitted infection and typically clears itself from a woman's body without ever showing symptoms or requiring any treatment, and some research suggests testing for the virus too often can also lead to overtreatment.

Pap tests are cytology-based, which means doctors put your cells under a microscope to check for abnormalities that could indicate or lead to cancer and involves more costly lab equipment. The HPV test, on the other hand, involves checking the cells for any of the more than 100 strains of the virus and tends to be easier for physicians' offices to perform—though not all offices offer them, considering the dominance of the Pap test for the past half-century.

So what difference will this all make in your routine OB/GYN appointment? Physically, not much—both the Pap and HPV tests require a swab of cells from the surface of your cervix, meaning you'll still need to have a doctor insert a speculum to get the required specimens. But you could potentially see a price difference, depending on your health care plan and provider. Each test typically has its own separate cost, which can range from $30 a pop to over $200 without insurance.

At the end of the day, every woman should make an informed decision with her own doctor about which testing plan makes the most sense for her body based on her own conditions.

Have more questions? Here's everything you need to know about HPV and cervical cancer.

Correction: This post has been updated to reflect that the U.S. Preventative Services Task Force is an independent volunteer body of experts convened by an HHS federal health agency, and is not a federal health agency.

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